Right (and Wrong) Ways to Use Risk Assessment in Justice Settings



Right (and Wrong) Ways to Use Risk Assessment in Justice Settings


Risk assessment is a key component of prevention. Because risk assessment can be used to structure decision points about which individuals present the greatest prevention opportunities, it can strategically guide systems to allocate resources to where they have the best chance to be effective. In this way, risk assessment is a core practice to promote safer communities and more successful people.

What Risk Assessment Should Be Used For

NCCD believes that once a risk assessment answers “who” questions by estimating the likelihood of future system involvement, systems should develop individualized case plans that are informed by risk, needs, and strengths; insights from family members; and available local resources, among other things.

What Risk Assessment Should Not Be Used For

Because risk assessment flags those for whom there is an opportunity for prevention, the appropriate response is interventions that can take advantage of that prevention opportunity. These types of interventions typically encourage prosocial activities, community and personal connections, and therapeutic interventions for individuals and families. Research has shown these types of interventions to be effective.

Punishment, many supervision and monitoring practices, incarceration, detention, out-of-home placement, secure confinement and other similar interventions that do not take a positive development approach have been shown though research to be either ineffective or counter-productive for long-term community safety. Given this, using risk assessment to guide decisions around these types of responses should not be a given and must be approached carefully and transparently. Without such considerations, it represents a tragic missed opportunity to support individuals and families and to make the community safer.

Data-Driven Sentencing

Sentencing decisions are about appropriate punishments for adults who have either pled guilty or been convicted of a crime. While punishment is a central feature of sentences, goals of sentencing may also include rehabilitation and deterrence.

Because punishment is a central concern of sentencing, and it is not fundamentally a prevention exercise, NCCD does not support the use of risk assessment to drive sentencing decisions.

Similar to risk assessment, some justice systems employ methods of “data-driven” or “data-informed” sentencing. In data-driven sentencing methods, similar to the construction of actuarial risk assessments, data are explored through traditional statistical analysis and predictive analytics, to create predictive classification models to provide sentencing recommendations. Again, because punishment is a central concern of sentencing, the use of predictive classification models to drive sentencing decisions is not endorsed by NCCD.


For more on NCCD's approach to risk assessment in research, policy, and practice:

A recent example of using risk assessment for a prevention opportunity in Los Angeles County

Are You an Ethics Champion? Five Questions to Ask Before Employing Predictive Analytics in Practice

The Consequences of Mistakes in Human Services Decision Making




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